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An S-shaped pattern in the perceived passage of time: how social interaction governs temporal experience

<span class='sc'>abstract</span>

Variation in the passage of time is perceived against the backdrop of standard temporal units. Under certain conditions, we perceive time to be passing slowly. In other settings, our subjective temporal experience is roughly synchronized with the objective time of clocks or calendars. And given different circumstances, we perceive time to have passed quickly. Drawing from 740 narratives that depict distortion in the perceived passage of time, I formulate a theory that accounts for the full range of variation in temporal experience. This theory can be represented by an S-shaped figure. According to this theory, variation in the perceived passage of time reflects variation in the density of experience per standard temporal unit. In turn, the density of experience per standard temporal unit is conditioned by the dynamics of social interaction. In its original form, however, this theory assumes that one’s circumstances shape one’s temporal experience in deterministic fashion. Consequently, based upon interviews with 406 disparate people, I conceptualize time work (or temporal agency) as one’s efforts to control, manipulate, or customize one’s own temporal experience or that of others. I conclude with some directions for future research.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Michael G. Flaherty, Department of Sociology, Eckerd College, 4200 54th Avenue South, Saint Petersburg, FL, 33711; e-mail:
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